Richard Robinson has been at the forefront of China’s tech revolution as a co-founder of start-ups, and an investor or advisor to dozens more, helping three list on the stock exchange. Here he talks about his journey watching China come from behind to overtake the world when it comes to tech
Next month is my 25th anniversary of arriving here in Beijing via train from Prague via Russia and Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Express. My goal was simply to journey overland from Switzerland to Hong Kong via rail but upon arrival in Beijing, the dragon swooped down, dug her talons into me and hasn’t let go since.
In the winter of 1993 it was much closer to Mao than to now. But nevertheless I felt immediately that China was the biggest story of my life: the mass rural to urban migration, the increase in GDP per capita resulting in 800 million people eventually being pulled out of poverty and the buzz – that energy, which to me was irresistible and intoxicating. I knew at once that I would be back.
From ’94-’96 I got an MBA at Erasmus University in the Netherlands and I had a second epiphany and became smitten with the internet and felt compelled to combine the two – my passion for the internet and for China.
At the end of 1996, just as the dotcom boom was starting to gain traction in the US, I came to China to seek opportunities in the internet startup space. Just one thing… someone had forgotten to tell the internet to show up before I got here. There were more people online in the British territory of Hong Kong with a population of 6 million than there were in the whole of the Mainland where most of the internet users were governmental workers or academics.
I spent the majority of the dotcom boom in Hong Kong and travelled frequently to China where I’ve now been full time for the past 18 years with a front-row seat as a serial entrepreneur, advisor and investor. I also teach a course on Entrepreneurship in China at Peking University’s Guanghua MBA programme and am a proud member of the local geek-o-system.
It’s worth noting that China is easily a half-decade ahead of the rest of planet earth when it comes to mobile payments
For much of the time I’ve been here, China was perceived as a copycat market where local entrepreneurs would simply create the eBay / Facebook / Twitter / Google of China. But something happened around a half billion internet users where China started innovating mightily.
There are now 800 million internet users in China (98 percent of them mobile) with Beijing providing a truly dynamic local startup ecosystem that is the closest rival to Silicon Valley on the planet, both qualitatively and quantitatively, and Shenzhen acting as the capital for hardware startups. And China is the Unicorn (a startup company valued at over a billion USD) capital of the world with 181 out of 300 something globally on last count.
The most valuable startup in the world, Bytedance based here in Beijing, is valued at US $75 billion. There’s US $25 billion in Electric Vehicle investments turbocharging the local EV market. The Middle Kingdom is now rivalling the US when it comes to the growth of Artificial Intelligence and is the so-called Saudi Arabia of data (due to lax privacy laws and so much mobile data). It’s also worth noting that the world’s most populous nation is easily a half-decade ahead of the rest of planet earth when it comes to mobile payments with the rise of WeChat Pay and AliPay.
In the nearly two decades I’ve been in China the growth has been exhilarating, the competition gladiatorial and the level of innovation is now world-class. I’m pumped for the next few decades.